Robust 2015 Sales Show the U.S. Auto Industry ‘In a Very Strong Place’

(Los Angeles Times/TNS) -

As automakers released December and full-year sales results Tuesday, all signs indicated that the U.S. auto market is healthy and robust.

Several companies reported gains in December, with some in the double digits. Nissan’s sales jumped 19 percent, Fiat Chrysler’s climbed 13 percent, Toyota’s rose nearly 11 percent and Honda’s went up almost 10 percent. Ford posted an 8 percent increase, and General Motors said its sales rose 6 percent.

Although several automakers have declared that their December or full-year sales broke company records, analysts cautioned against calling a victory for the entire industry before all results have been reported. Edmunds.com predicted last month that new-vehicle sales in 2015 would total 17.5 million, beating the previous record of 17.35 million set in 2000.

The numbers released so far point to continued growth in the auto industry, said Eric Lyman, vice president of industry insights at TrueCar.

“Even if we don’t see that this is the best year ever, I think that the fundamentals of the market say that this is still one of the best,” he said. “The auto industry is in a very strong place right now and a very positive place right now with a lot of momentum.”

For the full year, Fiat Chrysler reported 2.2 million vehicles sold, up 7 percent from 2014. Nissan, with 1.35 million, was also up 7 percent. General Motors sold 3.1 million vehicles, up 5 percent. Ford, with 2.6 million, was also up 5 percent. Toyota, with 2.5 million vehicles sold, was up 5 percent as well. And Honda posted 1.58 million vehicles sold, an increase of 3 percent.

Analysts attributed the 2015 gains to a strong economy, interest rates that were at historic lows and higher consumer confidence. Although lower gas prices haven’t necessarily affected overall auto sales, Lyman said, they have increased the variety of vehicles that consumers might go for.

“Because your operational costs are a bit lower … people might go for that SUV or a bigger engine or a bigger vehicle that’s less efficient,” he said.

This year, automakers will have to grapple with their strategy for cars, whose sales have stagnated in many segments while SUV and truck sales have grown, said Akshay Anand, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

Interest rates may also pose an issue, though Lyman said the effect on overall sales is expected to be negligible.

“The interest rates are going to increase in conjunction with the overall improvements in the economy, so we’re not too concerned,” he said.

He said TrueCar expects continued sales growth of about 3 percent this year, not quite as aggressive as in the last six years. The firm expects automakers to deliver 18 million vehicles in 2016.